GLENDALE, Ariz. — Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman are intense men. Both have a bruising style of play and the piercing stares to match it.
But in the first half of a friendly against rival Mexico here Wednesday night, it wasn’t intensity that permeated their faces - it was joy.
Jurgen Klinsmann decided to deviate from his typical 4-2-3-1 formation in which Bradley usually plays defensive midfielder and started the Toronto FC player at the top of a diamond midfield in a 4-4-2. Beckerman was deployed as the lone holding player - a role he plays with Real Salt Lake.
“It was a lot of fun,” Beckerman said after the 2-2 draw. “I thought he was able to get into the attack, be effective, get close to the goal. It was just fun.
“We really had a lot of fun in that first half. I think the momentum changed a little bit, but it’s something we can work on. I think we had a little foundation we can build on today, and we’ll see if we can get better.”
It’s a bit of a jolt to think that anyone other than Bradley and Jermaine Jones, who were the regular starters during the Hex, would play defensive midfield. Yet, in the first half of Wednesday’s match Bradley tormented the Mexican defense, scoring the opening goal off a 15th-minute corner kick and creating several other chances.
Part of that may have been the ineffectiveness of Jesus Zavala, who got the hook at halftime after it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to fill the defensive midfielder role in Miguel Herrera’s 5-3-2 system. Beckerman’s performance showed a huge contrast from the Monterrey man’s; he was superb in his distribution and didn’t venture forward to allow Mexico space in which to attack.
“Playing in there with Kyle means that now you have a guy who you know is a little more disciplined, who’s a little more … tends to stay right in front of defenders and take care of those spots, so it gives me a little bit more ability to be more two-way, to be up and down, to kind of play off my instincts in those ways,” Bradley said. “I think that depending on the game, depending on the opponent, that’s something that is certainly something I enjoy.”
Klinsmann worked on the 4-4-2 in the training prior to the match, and Beckerman also said he could see it being a formation deployed at the World Cup in Brazil. It’s unclear how much the appointment of Berti Vogts as a special adviser and a switch to Tab Ramos instead of Martin Vasquez as assistant coach prior to the match influenced the decision. However, no matter the inspiration, the manager isn’t set on sticking with a 4-2-3-1 at the World Cup.
“We also need to have at least two if not three different systems for the World Cup to kind of confuse, hopefully, the opponents also a little bit, but that was planned and we take a lot of good things with it and a couple of things that we need to correct,” Klinsmann said at a news conference.
The manager emphasized the burden placed on the holding midfielder in that system and also said there needs to be contributions from the wings - whether that be from the outside midfielders or the fullbacks.
Formation experimentation may bring back bad memories for U.S. fans after Steve Sampson’s 1998 system. Klinsmann will look to avoid catastrophe and provide supporters with the same sort of joy his team experienced in the first half.
That would be enough to bring a smile to the steeliest of American faces. Yes, even Bradley’s and Beckerman’s.